PhD Student in Clinical Medicine

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Kieran O’Donnell is part of a small research team based at Imperial College London who are investigating the links between maternal stress during pregnancy and the subsequent development of the fetus and child, an area termed fetal programming. The child’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive development have each been shown to be affected by increased levels of stress during pregnancy. Having obtained a first class honours degree in psychology, Kieran was keen to pursue a career in research that would benefit people’s health and is now just sixth months away from completing his PhD.

Read how Kieran’s positive and enthusiastic approach have helped him through the inevitable struggles experienced at the start of any academic career.

What does your job involve?

My research work is directly supervised by two leading academics in this field – Professor Vivette Glover here at Imperial College London, and Professor Tom O’Connor at the University of Rochester in New York. Vivette is on-hand in London to offer me her expert help and guidance, and Skype technology means I can keep in touch with my New York supervisor when he is not visiting the UK.

Describe a typical day

This role is actually very varied, but most mornings I am to be found in the laboratory analysing the stress hormone cortisol in saliva, recruiting participants or processing placental samples. Over the past two years I have analysed over 10,000 saliva samples virtually single-handed. The testing is quite simple and involves adding reagents to the saliva and measuring changes in colour which reflect cortisol levels, although this has been hard work with so many samples.

I am really interested in how maternal stress affects the fetus. One possibility is altered placenta function. To this end I am recruiting 100 women to take part in a new research project. We are measuring a placental barrier enzyme which protects the fetus from the high levels of cortisol found in a mother’s circulation. At the moment I spend quite a lot of time in the delivery suite of the nearby maternity hospital, waiting patiently for placentas to take back to the laboratory! The busy maternity unit is a fascinating environment, and it is a privilege to be involved at this very important time for mother and child.

During the afternoons I usually write-up the results of my research, answer emails and read scientific papers. We use the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) to analyse data, and I am fortunate that my supervisor in the US, Tom, is an expert in this field.

Teaching is also part of my job. Over the last three years I have co-supervised a number of MSc and BSc students undertaking projects relevant to my work. This usually takes place in the lab, where I demonstrate practical skills.

Does your job involve giving presentations to other academics?

Presenting the results of our research to others is something that I really enjoy, and this summer I gave a talk at The Royal Society about our work. I have also visited San Francisco, Boston, Dresden and Jerusalem where I delivered presentations to varying audiences of academics. Although this was nerve-wracking it was at the same time exhilarating, and the positive feedback I received was most encouraging. Occasional overseas travel is also a great perk of this work!

Why did you choose this area of research?

The implication that what happens in the womb can affect your future life fascinates me. An environment that should be so protected and secure is really quite sensitive to the external environment and how the mother feels. The mix of disciplines and the public health implications of this work are the factors which led me to pursue this research.

A successful application for a scholarship in neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry enabled me to undertake a one-year fully funded taught MSc programme. At the end of my MSc I applied for a PhD in the area of fetal programming but unfortunately the project failed to secure funding. I had almost given up hope and started applying for various jobs in research when I saw my current post advertised on the website. The role seemed tailor made for me and I was thrilled to be accepted.

As part of my PhD project I have worked with the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children of the 90s, which followed 15,000 mothers throughout their pregnancies and studied the children, who are now 17. Our previous work has shown maternal antenatal anxiety was found to have a two-fold increased link to emotional and behavioural problems in childhood. We hope to establish whether these effects persist and affect cortisol levels in adolescence.

The importance of perinatal mental health is only just starting to come to the fore, and has wide-ranging implications, not only for conduct and attention deficit disorders but for other risk factors such as criminality.

What skills and personal qualities are important?

Enthusiasm is crucial – researchers need to be inquisitive, analytical and questioning but also open to new ideas. You need to allow the data to inform you, and to be prepared for the disappointments as well as the successes. Being well-organised and tidy is also a big help, and this is something I could possibly improve on! A degree of independence is important for the lab work

What do you enjoy about your job?

The process of discovery is fascinating, alongside generating and testing ideas, which I found to be absent from the science teaching I had at school. I also love the travel that is part of this work which enables me to meet academics from all over the world at specialist conferences and events. Working somewhere like Imperial means that you are exposed to contemporary science all the time. In particular being part of Vivette Glover’s group has been a great experience which has opened up a range of exciting opportunities.

I am very much a people person and so I love the contact with people that this work gives me, from the patients and research team members to the midwives and other professionals.

Are there any dislikes?

Sometimes the long hours can be a nuisance, and you have to be prepared to take work home or to stay late at busy times. Because I enjoy what I am doing so much, this is not usually a problem.

How does this job fit into your work-life balance?

Imperial College London has a free gym for students which I use at least three times a week. Keeping a sense of balance and taking breaks are important, as well as making time for friends and a social life.

What prospects are there and what ambitions do you have?

I hope to stay in this area of research and after finishing my PhD I will be looking for work as a post-doctoral research assistant, possibly overseas.

What advice have you got for potential PhD students?

There will always be peaks and troughs in your levels of motivation, but the vital thing is to find a subject you are passionate about. If you find your motivation dipping during your PhD, and this will certainly happen, you can re-ignite your passion by reading around your chosen subject. Having an expert and enthusiastic supervisor helps, and both Vivette and Tom fit the bill for me in this respect! The key is also to have a good relationship with your supervisors, who will be open to helping you to pursue your own individual interests.

As your PhD progresses you will find that you can manage your own time to an increasing extent, although the last year is definitely the hardest and you have to be prepared to put in extra hours where necessary.

Careful financial planning is necessary. Some PhD stipends are more generous than others which is something to consider. Financial pressures can be part an unwelcome part of the PhD experience. If you do receive funding, this is usually secure for the duration of your PhD, however do enquire about funding for your write-up period. Many PhD stipends will be paid for the duration of lab work but may not cover the time it takes to prepare your thesis. Always check with a prospective supervisor before accepting an offer. After this you join the world of winning grants, which can be just as challenging.

When applying for a PhD a postgraduate qualification can be helpful but is not essential. Supervisors will usually consider each student on their individual merits, although some University’s do require a minimum of an upper second in your first degree. There are now some fully-funded integrated MSc/MRes and PhD programmes, in a pattern of one year plus three, which are a good option.

The most important thing is to keep a sense of perspective and to remain positive. Pursuing a career in research is not an easy option, although a PhD is a very valuable qualification in its own right if you do decide to leave academia and carve an alternative career.

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started?

There will be times when you feel de-motivated, but it is vital to keep a positive approach to see through to better times. Studying for a PhD is a very positive experience, despite the low level of income.

If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?

I would probably be working as a health psychologist or as a doctor, but either way I would definitely be working with people in a way that benefits their health.


Kieran O’Donnell left school in Ireland with the Irish Leaving Certificate where he focussed on science subjects including chemistry, biology and maths.

After taking a year out to work, Kieran then attended the University of Westminster in London to study a BSc in Psychology, where he achieved a first class honours degree. Following this he was an MRC scholarship student on the MSc Neuroscience course at the Institute of Psychiatry. Kieran is currently nearing the end of his PhD in Clinical Medicine at the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London.


O'Donnell K, Kammerer M, O'Reilly R, Taylor A, Glover V (2009) Salivary alpha-amylase stability, diurnal profile and lack of response to the cold hand test in young women. Stress (Epub ahead of print).

O'Donnell K, O'Connor TG, Glover V (2009) Prenatal stress and neurodevelopment of the child: focus on the HPA axis and role of the placenta. Developmental Neuroscience vol: 31, pp 285-292.

O’Donnell K, Glover V (2008) New Insights into Prenatal Stress: Immediate and Long-Term Effects on the Fetus and Their Timing. In: Neonatal Pain, pp 57-64.

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